“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review
Many years have passed since I last saw “THE GREAT GATSBY”, the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Many years. I must have been in my twenties when I last viewed the movie on television. After the release of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation, I found myself curious to see how this 43 year-old movie still held up.
Directed by Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a Jazz Age tale about a World War I veteran who becomes rich via bootlegging. His story is told from the viewpoint of another war veteran and Midwestern transplant, Nick Carraway, who happens to be his neighbor. Through Nick’s narration, audiences become aware of Gatsby’s obsessive love for his former paramour and Nick’s second cousin, a Louisville native named Daisy Fay Buchanan. Gatsby became rich, purchased a Long Island estate and befriended Nick in order to be near Daisy, who lived in the more socially elite part of Long Island with her husband Tom Buchanan and their daughter. With Nick’s help, Gatsby hopes to renew his romance with Daisy and convince her to leave the brutish Tom in order to recapture their romantic past.
So . . . what can I say about “THE GREAT GATSBY”? For one thing, it is an elegant looking film. And one can thank John Box’s production designs, which beautifully recapture the super rich of the Jazz Age. Box’s designs were aptly supported by the set decorations of Peter Howitt and Herbert F. Mulligan. Good examples of Howitt and Mulligan’s work can be found in the movie’s opening shot that feature the interiors of Gatsby’s Long Island home. Another aspect of “THE GREAT GATSBY” that contributed to the film’s elegance was Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes. I must admit that they are gorgeous. Take a look:
Aldredge had stiff competition for the Best Costume Design Academy Award, but in the end she won. Did she deserve that Oscar? I do not know. One of her competitors was Anthea Sylbert, who was nominated for her work on “CHINATOWN”. As much as I enjoyed Aldredge’s work, Sylbert’s work struck me as equally impressive. The two designers could have easily shared an Oscar. However, I did discover something interesting – although Aldredge did most of the work for the female leads and supporting characters, producer David Merrick hired designer Ralph Lauren to design the costumes for leading male characters – Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan. Although Lauren did not receive any recognition for his work, I must admit they looked great, even if I possess a bigger preference for Aldredge’s work.
Douglas Slocombe’s photography also contributed the elegant look and style of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Mind you, Slocombe’s shots of the film’s locations – New York, Rhode Island and Great Britain – looked beautiful. But his photography also had that soft focus look that practically screamed PERIOD DRAMA!”. It was the kind of photography that was very popular in the 1970s and still annoys me to this day. Nelson Riddle won an Academy Award for the score he wrote for the film. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it and found it very effective. Actually, I found Riddle’s score to be incredibly boring. The music sounded as if it belonged in a television one-hour drama, instead of a Hollywood film adaptation of a classic novel. The only music that I managed to enjoy in the film were the 1920s tunes featured in the Gatsby party scenes.
What can I say about Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel? Actually, I cannot say a word. According to Coppola, what he wrote and what ended on the screen proved to be two different entities. Even screenwriter William Goldman, who had read Coppola’s original screenplay, seemed indifferent to Jack Clayton’s changes to the script. I have seen at least three adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novel. This is probably the most faithful adaptation I have come across. Unfortunately, this close adaptation did not really help the movie. I have no idea what kind of movie “THE GREAT GATSBY” would have become if Clayton had adhered to Coppola’s script. But judging from the nature of Clayton’s direction, I suspect that it would not have helped in the end. Clayton’s direction proved to be incredibly dull. In fact, he nearly drained the life out of Fitzgerald’s tale. I think Clayton took the concept of period drama a bit too far. I got the feeling that I was watching a “MASTERPIECE THEATER” production that originated on the BBC, instead of a film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. And honestly? I have come across “MASTERPIECE THEATER” productions that proved to be a lot more energetic.
Some of the movie’s scenes turned out well. I was impressed by the party scenes at Gatsby’s house, even if screenwriter William Goldman found them vulgar. The scenes’ “vulgarity” did not bother me, because I found them entertaining and energetic. Those scenes, by the way, featured appearances by future star Edward Herrmann, who eventually starred in his own 1920s opus, “THE CAT’S MEOW” twenty-seven years later. I also enjoyed the party held by the adulterous Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson at their own New York hideaway, even if it was nearly bogged down by Myrtle’s account of her first meeting with Tom. I also thought that Clayton handled the discovery of Myrtle’s death very well. It struck me as especially effective, thanks to a flashback of the hit-and-run that claimed her life. The movie’s best scene proved to be Gatsby and Tom’s confrontation over Daisy at the Plaza Hotel suite. This is not surprising, since this scene has proven to be the best in all of the adaptations I have seen and in the novel. My only complaint is that Clayton or the script cut it short by allowing Daisy to flee the suite before she could say anything or make a decision about her relationships with both Gatsby and Tom.
But the movie’s slow pace and reverent exploration of the Jazz Age wealth featured in the production designs nearly grounded “THE GREAT GATSBY” to a halt. I take that back. The slow pacing and obsession with the 1920s production designs proved to be impediments to the movie. But the Gatsby-Daisy love scenes nearly grounded the movie to a halt. I found them incredibly boring. Mindlessly dull. I had to hit the “fast-forward” button of my DVD remote every time Robert Redford and Mia Farrow appeared in a scene alone. They had no screen chemistry whatsoever. Between Redford’s silent intensity and Farrow’s over-the-top impersonation of Zelda Fitzgerald, there seemed to be no middle ground between them in order to form a believable romance. Daisy Buchanan was supposed to be Jay Gatsby’s “American Dream” – his final rung into the world of the American elite. But I had a difficult time accepting this, while growing increasingly bored over Redford and Farrow’s non-existent screen chemistry. Redford and Farrow are partially to blame, due to their performances. But I place most of the blame on Clayton who did not even bother to rectify this flaw.
“THE GREAT GATSBY” was also sabotaged by one particular scene in which Gatsby confronted Daisy over her decision to marry Tom and not bother to wait for his return from the war and France. I must admit that Redford did some of his best acting in this scene. Unfortunately, I found his efforts a complete waste of time. There was no need for this scene. Why would Gatsby confront Daisy on this matter? He knew why she had dumped him in the first place. Why else would he bother to get into bootlegging in order to quickly acquire a great deal of money and a mansion across the bay from her husband’s Long Island home? Even after Daisy finally admitted that “nice rich girls do not marry poor boys”, either Clayton, Coppola’s screenplay or both failed to explore the consequences of Daisy’s confession. Instead, the movie immediately jumped to the scene featuring the Buchanans’ visit to one of Gatsy’s Saturday night parties. In other words, this scene was a complete waste of time.
I also found the lack of African-Americans in this movie rather puzzling. “THE GREAT GATSBY” is set in Manhattan and Long Island, during the early years of the Jazz Age (although the movie changed the story’s setting to 1925). One would think some of the super rich had black servants. The movie did feature a few black characters in the scene at Wilson’s Garage, following Myrtle’s death in the Valley of Ashes. But that is it. I did not expect any major or supporting black characters in this story. But the servants featured in the Buchanans and Jay Gatsby’s mansions were all white. Even the jazz musicians who performed at Gatsby’s parties were white. Even more incredible, they were white, middle-aged men between the ages of 40 and 55. This sounds plausible in the post-World War II era in which one would find such bands engaged in musical nostalgia at some quaint nightclub or community event. However, we are talking about the 1920s. All white jazz bands seem plausible if the performers had been between the ages of 18 and 30. But these jazz musicians were middle-aged. White, middle-aged jazz musicians in 1925? Perhaps some did exist. But this is the only adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel in which I have come across this phenomenon.
Jack Clayton’s direction did nothing for most of the performances in this film. As I had earlier pointed out, Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby spent most of the film looking iconic and acting mysterious. What happened to the hopeful loser from Fitzgerald’s tale? Even Redford managed to beautifully portray a similar character with great success in 1973’s “THE STING”. Perhaps he simply lost interest, thanks to Clayton’s direction. However, I must admit that Redford had at least two great moments. Despite my dislike of the scene in which Gatsby demanded an explanation from Daisy regarding her earlier rejection of him, Redford gave a perfectly intense performance. But I was really impressed by that moment in which Gatsby met Daisy and Tom’s daughter, Pammy. Redford conveyed a perfect mixture of surprise and wariness. In fact, I would say it was his best moment in the entire movie.Mia Farrow has received a good deal of praise for her portrayal of Daisy Buchanan. She will not receive any from me. I found her performance rather strident and grating. Her performance reminded me more like the wild and unstable Zelda Fitzgerald than the seductive and flaky Daisy. Another over-the-top performance came from Karen Black, who portrayed the grasping and adulterous Myrtle Wilson. She had some nice moments. But most of her scenes found her nearly screaming at the top of her lungs. “THE GREAT GATSBY” featured Lois Chiles’ third screen role, in which she portrayed Daisy’s Louisville friend, Jordan Baker. Honestly? I really do not know what to say about Chiles’ performance other than I found it flat and dull. She looked good. That, I cannot deny. If one wants to see both Farrow and Chiles at their best, I would recommend 1978’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”, in which both actresses gave better performances.
The movie did feature some good performances. Sam Waterston gave a nice, subtle performance as Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. He managed to project a good deal of emotion, while being subtle at the same time. My only complaint is that both he and Redford failed to generate any kind of chemistry as two neighbors who become friends. Scott Wilson gave an emotional, yet textured performance as Myrtle’s cuckolded husband, George Wilson. The actor did a very good job in conveying both the character’s passionate love for Myrtle and whipped personality. I also enjoyed Howard Da Silva’s performance as Gatsby’s bootlegging colleague, Meyer Wolfsheim. Although brief, I found his performance very entertaining and charming. By the way, Da Silva portrayed George Wilson in the 1949 version of Fitzgerald’s novel. If I had to give an award for the movie’s best performance, I would hand it over to Bruce Dern for his portrayal of Daisy’s brutish and elitist husband, Tom Buchanan. Mind you, Dern did not exactly convey the picture of a sports-obsessed ex-jock with a powerful build. But he did an excellent job in portraying Tom’s obsession with social position, warm passion for Myrtle and possessive regard for Daisy. More importantly, he managed to inject a great deal of energy in all of his scenes – especially the one featured at the Plaza Hotel suite. I must admit that I found one of his lines rather funny for two different reasons. Tom’s complaint about Gatsby’s pink suit struck me rather funny, thanks to Dern’s delivery. But I also found it hilarious that Tom would complain about the color of Gatsby’s suit, while wearing a purple one. If you doubt me, take a gander at the following image:
If the purple in Tom’s suit had been any deeper, one would think he was a gauche social climber . . . or a pimp. Frankly, Dern’s line would have been more effective if the actor’s suit had possessed a more conservative color in that scene.
Overall, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a beautiful looking movie to behold. And I believe it could have become a more energetic and interesting tale if the producers had hired a better director. I realize that Jack Clayton’s reputation had been made due to his work on 1959’s “ROOM AT THE TOP”. But he really dropped the ball some fifteen years later, thanks to his dull and lethargic direction of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Cast members such as Bruce Dern and Sam Waterson managed to overcome Clayton’s direction. Others failed to do so. This was especially the case for Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, who portrayed the movie’s two main characters. And because of Clayton’s poor direction, this version of “THE GREAT GATSBY” proved to be a big disappointment for me.